Book Review: The Alamo

The Alamo
I, Q #4
by Roland Smith & Michael P. Sprandlin

My rating: 3.5 / 5
Genre: Children’s spy thriller

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series, starting with Independence Hall.

New step-siblings Q (short for Quest) and Angela continue to trail a ghost terrorist cell along with SOS, a team made up mostly of retired operatives from the CIA and other organizations. Angela’s mother is climbing her way toward the top of the ghost cell, but the danger is getting higher all the time. Meanwhile, something strange is going on with Boone, and is Q’s dad friend or foe?

Here we have part 4 of the series-long story, the kind of series that you really need to start from the beginning. This is the first book that is co-written by another author, but it’s not super noticeable to me. Though I will say that this is the first book that starts with a list of all of the characters and a recap of past events, which my aging memory appreciated. Overall, though, it doesn’t feel particularly new. None of the questions from the last book are answered and are really only muddied more. The characters gain a very small amount of ground, and some of the plot points feel like a rehash.

There’s still a lot of action, and I like the way that the series moves around the country to different major locations. I think there are some discrepancies regarding the relative placements of the Alamo Plaza and the San Fernando Cathedral, an area I’ve studied recently for my job (https://www.getbeyondthewalls.com/), so that brought me out of the story a little. However, I’m still really interested in seeing where the rest of this series goes.

Find out more about The Alamo

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: Treasure Hunters

Treasure Hunters
Book #1
by James Patterson & Chris Grabenstein
read by Brian Kennedy

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure

The Kidds are a family of treasure hunters. They live on a boat, traveling the world, recovering various kinds of items from shipwrecks. But after the separate but equally mysterious disappearances of both of their parents, the Kidd children are left on their own to deal with a band of pirates who want their treasure and local authorities who don’t want them to be left on their own. Then some clues surface that point at evidence to what really happened to their parents, and the adventure really begins.

I’m a bit torn on this book. The overall story was fun and adventurous and ends with a promise of more of the same. The main cast consists of 4 kids: the oldest is Tommy, then Storm, and twins Bick and Beck (short for Bickford and Rebecca). Bick is the narrator of the book, and Beck draws the illustrations along the way. I had to borrow the ebook to be able to see the illustrations, and I liked them, even one part when they were drawn by a different character.

However, I wrote more notes while listening, of things I wanted to remember for later, than I have for any book I’ve ever read. Not all of these notes were of issues I had with the story. For example, there was a gang of pirates that were basically surfer dudes, and the way they were voiced by the narrator gave that part of the story a major 3 Ninjas vibe, which I quite enjoyed. The narrator did a good job of sounding like a 12-year-old boy most of the time, but sounding like older characters when needed, too. Now and then, he seemed to put the emphasis in the wrong place, but overall, I liked the narrator.

What most of my notes boil down to are things I didn’t like about the way characters are presented or written. Tommy was probably my favorite of the Kidds. He’s uncomplicated and smarter than he seems. Storm is a fairly stereotypical, way-too-smart-to-be-believable character, even to the point of being overweight and socially awkward. It seems a little too much like the author(s) enjoys shaming fat people, not just because of this character (and it had to be pretty deliberate to make her this way, since it’s unlikely to me that someone living the way this family does would become so overweight), but because there are two other characters in the book that are described as ridiculously obese, and the narrator, who knows how much his sister hates to be teased about her weight, is not remotely kind in his descriptions of those characters.

Then we have Bick and Beck and their “twin tirades,” which are quick argument “squalls.” After a few of these, I realized that they’re really just a way for them to discuss opposing views, but they start out already angry. They mostly feel forced, and frankly, their parents should have put a stop to them a long time ago, insisting instead that they find a calmer and more healthy way to communicate. Also, all three of the kids were far too cavalier about the perceived deaths of their parents. They moved on so fast, it was as if they weren’t very attached to them.

This is the first of anything by James Patterson that I’ve read, but I have enjoyed books by Chris Grabenstein before. I’d really like to see where this story goes and hope that some of what I didn’t like about this book will be lessened in the future, as the series continues.

Find out more about Treasure Hunters

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: Canyon Quest

Canyon Quest
Last Chance Detectives prequel
by Jim Ware

My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian mystery, adventure

Mike Fowler hates Ambrosia, Arizona. It’s hot and dry, there’s no snow, he has no friends, and worst of all, his dad isn’t there. Even though his dad disappeared while flying a plane in the Gulf War, Mike is certain the answer to his whereabouts is still out there somewhere. And when he makes some new discoveries shortly after his twelfth birthday, he realizes the clues he needs might be out in the desert around Ambrosia.

I really like the Last Chance Detectives. I watched The Mystery Lights of Navajo Mesa so many times when I was younger that when I read that book for the first time recently, several of the lines from the book I could hear perfectly from the actor/actress’s mouth from the movie. This prequel is a chance to see Mike and the others before their detective club formed, even before the four of them became friends. For that, I appreciated the book. And considering how frustrated I was about Winnie’s utter lack of a personality or really any shown contribution to the group in the other 3 books I’d read before this, I really liked her as a character in this one (though it seemed like she had a crush on Mike, something I don’t recall coming up in the books that take place later).

The author made some strange choices with the story, though. From everything I could tell, and I went back to make sure I hadn’t misremembered, Mike’s dad has been considered MIA for 6 years. I don’t know how long he and his mom have lived in Ambrosia at the start of the story, though. It seems like it hasn’t been that long, since the book starts with him counting the money he’s saved up to buy a bus ticket so that he can travel back home and stay with the best friend he left behind. But wording elsewhere makes it sound like they moved to Ambrosia shortly after his dad disappeared. Either way, his dad has been gone for six years after remains of his F-16 had been discovered somewhere in the Middle East, yet Mike is absolutely certain throughout parts of this book that clues to his dad’s current whereabouts can be found in the desert in Arizona. Uh…what? It’s difficult to allow the excuse of “he’s a grieving kid” after this many years have gone by, but even still, it’s an idea with absolutely no merit. Add to that his surly attitude and how he lets his unhappiness lead him to be rude to the kids that are becoming his friends, and it wasn’t as fun to read as the other books in the series.

While I still think the main books in the series are great for kids around age 10-14, I would say there is unfortunately little benefit to reading this prequel. For those interested, though, especially for anyone who’s a big fan of the book series, movies, or radio dramas, by all means, check it out.

*Note: The entire group of 4 kids that make up the Last Chance Detectives come together in this book. This is a departure from the original edition of the first book in the series, The Mystery Lights of Navajo Mesa (which takes place after this prequel), in which Spence was introduced to the other 3 for the first time. However, in the recent re-release of that book, it’s changed to show Spence as already one of the group.

Find out more about Canyon Quest

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: Kitty Hawk

Kitty Hawk
I, Q #3
by Roland Smith

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s spy thriller

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the previous books in the series, starting with Independence Hall.

New step-siblings Q (short for Quest) and Angela continue to trail a ghost terrorist cell along with SOS, a team made up mostly of retired operatives from the CIA and other organizations. Most importantly, they’re following Angela’s mother and the First Daughter, and it’s vital that they don’t fall for the ghost cell’s attempts to confuse whoever might be following them. Meanwhile, some unexpected new developments are thrown into the mix, and it’s not always clear who is friend, foe, or neither.

We start in the middle of the chase again in this book, though I had no difficulty diving back in. I’m glad I’m reading the series after it’s all out, or I’d probably struggle with remembering what’s going on if I had to wait a year or more to continue on. The first two books were largely from Q’s POV (1st person), with other scenes shown to us as 3rd person and in italics. This book, though, has a lot more from other people’s POVs, still 3rd person, and fortunately loses the italics, because it would have been a lot of italics, and that’s not always pleasant to read. It seemed strange to still be 1st person when following Q, since there was so much 3rd person this time, but it would have also been weird to suddenly drop the 1st person completely after 2 books. It was only a little confusing to go back to 1st person now and then, so overall, not a problem. And I really appreciated being able to follow the multiple sub-sets of the SOS team in one particular part of this book.

Two big things happened in this book that intrigued me the most. One was not clear to me by the end whether or not there’s more going on than what is stated (there’s not much more I can say without giving spoilers). The second new development is the big one, that being the sudden supernatural elements that seem to come out of nowhere. Though when I examine it further, I don’t think it’s completely out of nowhere. There were certainly signs that something unusual was going on in the first two books, but I definitely did not expect this. I’m willing to give both of these uncertain elements a chance, though. The books have been enjoyable so far, and I am still looking forward to seeing where the overall story goes from here.  At this point, I still recommend this series for younger readers who want something exciting or thrilling, or even adults who don’t necessarily care for adult spy thrillers but enjoy a good adventure story.

Find out more about Kitty Hawk

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: Genius Camp

Genius Camp
The Smartest Kid in the Universe #2
by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure

12-year-old Jake and his scientifically enhanced, super-smart brain are invited to Genius Camp for a week by Zane Zinkle, a man who had once held the title of the smartest kid in the universe. Now he owns a large corporation (the 2nd wealthiest in the world) and has created an AI computer, which he wants to pit against Jake’s smarts.

This book was just as fun as its predecessor. I really appreciated that Jake was insecure about his newfound genius, partly because he wasn’t sure if/when it might suddenly wear off, and partly because he knew the jelly beans don’t cover every subject. I like his connection to Haazim Farooqi (jelly bean creator) and Farooqi’s involvement in this story. And I love that a certain other book series by Grabenstein is officially in the same universe as this series (I really want to say more, but I won’t, to avoid spoilers).

Kojo started to drive me a little crazy in this book, with his insistence on adding “baby” into his dialog so often. If I met this kid in real life, I’d have to walk away pretty quickly. I also was initially put off by the incredibly ridiculous immaturity of the villain, but I mentioned this to my 11-year-old daughter who had already read the book, and she pointed out that it wasn’t necessarily unrealistic, given the villain’s backstory, and I was able to look past it more easily after that. I did predict the sort-of-twist at the end, but I think that’s mostly because of a certain movie I’ve seen several times (I won’t name it, because it would spoil the ending), which I’m sure kids in the age range that this book is meant for would be a lot less familiar with. As I mentioned above, my 11-year-old daughter read it before me, and she loved it as much as the previous. That’s the strongest endorsement I can ever give for a middle grade book, so make sure to check it out for your kids (or you)!

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House Children’s Books for providing me a copy of this book to review.

Find out more about Genius Camp

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: The Smartest Kid in the Universe

The Smartest Kid in the Universe
Book #1
by Chris Grabenstein

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s adventure

When 12-year-old Jake eats some jelly beans left sitting on a table, he never expected there to be consequences. Before long, though, he’s become the smartest kid in the universe, because the jelly beans were actually indigestible knowledge! Not only does he know a lot of things he hasn’t studied, he also learns faster when he does study new things. But will this newfound intelligence be enough to help him and his friends save their middle school from destruction, not to mention solve an old pirate legend?

This is an adventurous book that pushes the boundaries of modern technology in a fun way. Jake starts out as a kid who is too lazy to do much of anything, including learn new things. The jelly beans certainly give him a new outlook on life, and even though they do give him information without him having to learn, they don’t give him all information. Some things he needs to know he still has to study like the rest of us. Well, not quite like the rest of us, because his brain learns a lot faster than normal, but I do like that he’s not just handed everything he needs to save the day. I also like that he’s not the only smart one when he joins the quiz team with his friends. He may be the smartest kid in the universe, but he still needs some backup.

Jake’s best friend, Kojo, has recently become obsessed with old detective shows, which leads him to use the catchphrase of one of those old detectives a lot throughout the story. I grew up on Matlock, Columbo, and Murder, She Wrote, but Kojo was hung up on Kojak, which was a little before my time. I was just hoping for one, “Oh, just one more thing,” when Kojo was about to leave a room. Still, the way Kojo’s obsession plays out later in the book is pretty great.

I wish that this super-smart kid would have had some opponents that were a little smarter themselves; the villains were pretty stupid, especially Mrs. Malvolio. But maybe Grabenstein will step that up in the 2nd book in the series. There are also still parts of the author’s writing style (especially in dialog) that rub me the wrong way, but I did my best to ignore it. Like the Lemoncello series before it, my 11-year-old daughter strongly recommended this book to me, because she loved it! That’s the strongest endorsement I can ever give for a middle grade book, so make sure to check it out for your kids (or you)!

Find out more about The Smartest Kid in the Universe

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: The White House

The White House
I, Q #2
by Roland Smith

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s spy thriller

Spoiler notice: The following review will contain some spoilers for the first book in the series, Independence Hall.

New step-siblings Q (short for Quest) and Angela delve deeper into the world of espionage as they try to help Angela’s mother, who was until recently believed dead, work against the terrorist cell she has infiltrated. Q and Angela are staying at the White House while their newly married rock-star parents prepare for a show for the president. Can they help flush out the bad guys in the White House and keep the first family safe?

This book really hits the ground running, with not much in the way of reminders from the first book, either about plot or about who’s who. I’m glad I made some notes and also didn’t wait too long to continue the series. It was a fast-paced story, building on what the first book set up, and even giving us Angela’s mom’s perspective throughout. Angela and Q were a little less involved this time, more watching, listening, reacting, even lucking into things, but on the other hand, it’s a little more realistic. Still, I like seeing Q’s and Angela’s smarts and abilities come into play.

I’m looking forward to seeing where the story goes from here, and I would recommend this for younger readers who want something exciting or thrilling, or even adults who don’t necessarily care for adult spy thrillers but enjoy a good adventure story. This series is the type where the whole thing tells one long story (from what I’ve seen so far, at least), so keep that in mind if you consider reading it—start with #1.

Find out more about The White House

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride
by William Goldman

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Fantasy adventure, romance, humor

This was my first reading of Goldman’s “good parts version” of the S. Morgenstern classic. I’ve seen the movie, of course, enough times to appreciate how similar it is to the book, and the following review will include some comparisons. Overall, I liked the book, though it did have some downsides for me. In fact, I almost called it quits in the first chapter. Fortunately, I stuck with it, and really enjoyed the book once it took off.

I’ll start with what I liked. Both Inigo and Fezzik had full backstories that I thought at first would be dry to read about, but I was wrong! They gave those characters so much more depth. In fact, there’s more information giving in a lot of areas (not surprising when a book is turned into a movie, even when done well). Humperdinck is even more villainous than he is in the movie, the Zoo of Death being quite dark and a great setting for The Machine. To be honest, I don’t know what I would have thought about the book if I had read it before seeing the movie, since I’m sure some of what made it more enjoyable was having the well-chosen actors in mind when reading.

The story-within-a-story framework for this book is quite inventive. I’m sure Goldman fooled (and possibly still fools) many people into believing that there really was an original book written by S. Morgenstern that he then abridged. The fictional version of himself that he puts into the story, though, is pretty terrible. I struggled through the intro section in which he explains how he tried to track down the original book for his son, due mostly to the fact that during that part, he calls his son fat, blames his wife for his son being fat, and wants us to know how much he wants to cheat on his wife. Boy, am I glad the framework in the movie is just a kid and his grandpa. Then we get into the book and there’s so much focus on physical looks regarding Buttercup and other women for so many pages, after how disheartening the intro was…I put the book down and told my husband (who strongly wanted me to read it, whose favorite movie is The Princess Bride, and who also really liked the book when he read it some time ago) that I didn’t think I could go on. But I did. And I’m really glad I did. The book is really fun overall, but when I go back and read it again someday, I may start at chapter 2.

Find out more about The Princess Bride

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: Terror from Outer Space

Terror from Outer Space
Last Chance Detectives #4
by Robert Vernon

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian mystery, adventure

Have aliens landed in the desert? Though the report may be unbelievable, Sheriff Smitty can’t deny that something strange is going on, especially when he has his own frightening encounter. It’s up to Mike, Winnie, Spence, and Ben, the Last Chance Detectives, to investigate, but they won’t like what they find.

Overall, this was another solid addition to the series, with some exciting scenes and a hard, but important, lesson of faith learned by Mike. The mystery was predictable to me, but younger readers will be much less likely to guess what’s going on. If I’d been in Winnie’s shoes in this story, I probably would have passed out, or at least been found curled up on the floor crying.

Speaking of Winnie, it’s much more obvious in this book that she’s not as well developed as her three friends. The other three have a line or two explaining what they bring to the group at the beginning of the story. Mike’s confidence makes him a natural leader, Spence is clever and inventive, even Ben is said to provide fun and out-of-the-box thinking. There’s literally nothing, not even a minor attempt, made to show Winnie’s contribution to the group, and thinking about the 3 books in this series I’ve read in the last few days, I couldn’t tell you what it was either. She’s just…there.

This is the first new story to come out in a series from the 90s, and while I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the 2 originals that I recently read, I do still recommend this book for those around age 10-14.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers/Focus on the Family for providing me a copy of this book to review.

Find out more about Terror from Outer Space
Publication date: October 5, 2021

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!

Book Review: Escape from Fire Lake

Escape from Fire Lake
Last Chance Detectives #3
by Robert Vernon

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Children’s Christian adventure

When Mike Fowler stumbles across bank robbers making a getaway, he becomes an accidental hostage. Unwilling to let him point the finger at them, the thieves leave him for dead in the middle of the desert. Can Mike make it to civilization before succumbing to the sun in Fire Lake?

Wow! For a short book meant for kids, this was quite an intense ride! Unlike the first book in the series, this one was completely new to me, and it really sucked me in. Mike’s trek through the desert, trying not to give in to the sun or his own worries, was really suspenseful and kept me hooked all throughout. At the same time, the other Last Chance Detectives are looking for him, and that part is interesting too. Whereas children’s books can sometimes venture away from reality, in that the kids in the story do things that kids wouldn’t really be able to do in real life, I felt like all of it was quite plausible in this case.

Though there wasn’t any kind of mystery in this story, at least not to the reader, it was still full of adventure and great lessons about relying on God and letting Him give you peace in scary situations. Again the danger is very real, but it doesn’t get to be what I’d consider too scary for kids, and I highly recommend this book for those around 10-14.

Thank you to Netgalley and Tyndale House Publishers/Focus on the Family for providing me a copy of this book to review.

Find out more about Escape from Fire Lake
**Note: This book has been out since 1996, but a new, slightly updated edition will be released on October 5, 2020.

See what I’m reading next.

If you’ve read this book, or read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think!